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Wicked Game

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I see your face before me, as I lay on my bed

I kinda get to thinking of all the things you said

You gave your promise to me, and I gave mine to you

I need someone beside me in everything I do

Saturday, July 20th, 2019

The Beekman, Financial District

“This is most definitely not what our clients are expecting.”

“It’s fine.”

“And these events are very important. Presentation is everything in this business, Carmilla.”

“I’m well aware of that.”

“The colors are all wrong.”

“Oh my god, mother, stop,” Carmilla sighed from her spot next to Lilita Morgan at the edge of the incredibly lavish room, the rest of the space filled with many of Opaque’s more prestigious clients and a few they were hoping to swoop in on. “The colors aren’t wrong. The food isn’t too casual. The music isn’t too ‘hip.’ Everything is fine. Mattie did a great job putting this all together and everyone is having a blast.”

“These dinners aren’t designed to be parties,” Lilita argued, gesturing toward the crowd with her martini glass, the lights from above glinting off her diamond bracelet as she did.

“No, but they also aren’t funerals,” Carmilla chuckled quietly, glancing over just in time to see the horrified look on her mother’s face. “Seriously, mother, it’s fine. If we’re skewing toward a younger clientele, this is what they want to see. This is what is going to get them in the door. We can save the wakes for the old folks next month.”

“I cannot believe you are referring to my gatherings as wakes.”

“They’re stuffy as hell,” she laughed again. “Besides, we have to do this ourselves since you’re not going to be around forever. I mean, you do realize what retirement means, don’t you?”

“I’m well aware of the definition, however, I’m not out the door just yet,” Lilita huffed, nose slightly upturned.

“Oh, I know, we’re counting down the days. There’s a big clock in Will’s office that will sound off in celebration when you leave the building on your last day,” Carmilla said, taking a slow sip from her champagne flute before turning back to see Lilita’s less than impressed expression. “I’m kidding.”

“You get that sense of humor from your father,” she said, rolling her eyes and looking away. But not before Carmilla caught the barest hint of a loving smile pulling at her lips.

“Yeah,” she said, fondly smiling as well. “I know.”

She glanced down at her dress, smoothing out an invisible wrinkle in the fitted black skirt, the mention of her father one that always left her a little wistful. He wasn’t a topic that often came up in conversation, whether with her mother or her siblings. But she knew her mother was right. She knew if her dad was there at that moment, he’d be poking fun at Lilita as he smiled at her with pride.

“I suppose you have a point about skewing younger,” Lilita said, schooling her face once again. “But there’s a line that we don’t want to cross. It would be wise to remember that, Carmilla.”

“We’ll keep the strippers in the back, I promise.”

“You know, you’re not even the slightest bit amusing, darling.”

“Look, I know. We know,” Carmilla said, meeting her mother’s stern eye. “We’ve watched you do this for years, so trust us. The events will remain professional, mother. I promise. All we have to do is keep Will out of the planning and we’ll be fine.”

“I knew my girls were smart,” Lilita said, taking another sip of her gin martini as she glanced around the room. “Besides, we both know your brother is far too lazy to care.”

“If it were up to him, he’d throw out a pizza and some beer and call it good.”

“I think you’re being a bit generous,” Lilita said, chuckling softly. She met Carmilla’s gaze once more before continuing to peruse through the faces of the guests, her eyebrows just barely arching as she caught sight of something in particular. “And while professionalism is incredibly important, I am aware that this evening isn’t all business.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. I see you’ve invited your… friend.”

Carmilla turned in the direction Lilita was facing, her eyes scanning the crowd for a moment. And she felt her breath instantly catch in her throat as she finally caught sight of Laura entering the room, hair up, makeup soft, and a deep red cocktail dress that had more than just Carmilla staring.

She’d asked Laura to come to the dinner a little over a week earlier, as they’d been sitting in Sherman’s living room, the elder Hollis having just retired for the night after yet another Phillies defeat and his own loss to Carmilla at chess. There had been light brushes of fingers across arms and hands, shoulders pressed together as they sat side by side.

“You want me to come to a fancy business event?” Laura asked, obviously surprised when Carmilla cautiously broached the subject.

“I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t want your company.”

“Yeah, but… your family will be there,” Laura said, pulling at Carmilla’s ring finger. “I mean, is that okay?”

“We’re all allowed a plus one,” Carmilla answered, smiling at the way the smaller girl continued to nervously fidget. “We are the heads of the company after all.”

“Yeah, I know. I just…”

Carmilla waited for a long moment as Laura trailed off before linking their fingers together and pulling Laura’s hand into her lap, the gesture bringing Laura’s sweet brown eyes back to her own.

“It’s just… well, after the other night,” she started. “I mean, what will they think? Me showing up with you?”

“I don’t care what they think or what they’ll do or what they’ll say,” Carmilla said, leaning in closer. “I’m going out of town the day after and I just want you there. I want… I want to spend the night with you at my side.”

Jesus, pull it together, she chastised herself, the words not ones she would ever expect to say. To anyone. But one look at the smaller girl’s face told her she needn’t worry.

“Yeah?” Laura practically whispered, smiling wide.

“Yeah,” Carmilla answered with her own soft smile, pressing their foreheads together, sagging a little in relief.

Laura had giggled once and nodded, bringing her free hand up to cup Carmilla’s cheek, thumb running back and forth along her jaw.

“I’d love to be your… your date.”

I’m in so much trouble, Carmilla thought as she continued to stare into Laura’s gorgeous brown eyes, the flecks of gold only drawing her in even more.

And now, a week later, standing there in that ballroom watching Laura enter, the same thought rolled through her brain. Because yes, at this point, she could admit it to herself. Carmilla liked her best friend. Carmilla wanted her best friend. Carmilla was only getting in deeper and deeper as the days went by. And there didn’t seem to be anything for her to grab onto in order to stop from falling completely. Which was absolutely and utterly terrifying. But what was even scarier was the fact that she was actually starting to wonder if maybe these feelings weren’t completely unreciprocated.

When the tiny brunette had shown up at her apartment a little over two weeks earlier after their minor spat at the bar, wanting nothing more than to talk, Carmilla had been unable to fully turn her away. And the words pouring from Laura’s mouth that night had her heart lightening with each second.

‘You’re like my favorite person in the world because you’re you.’

‘I trust you and I care about you.’

‘I adore you, Carmilla Karnstein.’

‘What we have… all of it… I only want with you.’

It wasn’t like she hadn’t heard similar declarations from Laura before. But there was something different about the way she said it that night. Something behind the words. A hidden message that Laura wasn’t willing to show just yet. And that night, the possibility planted itself into her brain, leaving Carmilla to wonder if she meant more to Laura than she originally thought. If perhaps Laura saw something else between them. If Laura wanted to take this further.

They’d been practically inseparable since, but it wasn’t their normal routine. They’d had dinner one night at an intimate Italian restaurant, sitting across from each other at a small candlelit table, knees brushing below and hands above. Laura had treated and smiled at her throughout the entire meal, no traces of uncertainty or hesitation. They’d left the restaurant hand in hand, slowly meandering down the street, completely content in each other’s company. And when they’d parted in front of Carmilla’s building half an hour later, Laura’s eyes had searched her own for a long moment before the smaller girl went up on her toes, leaving the most tender kiss against Carmilla’s lips. She was blushing when she pulled away, her anxiety obviously getting the better of her. And before Carmilla could even ask what was wrong, Laura had stepped away with a quiet goodnight and quickly strode off down the sidewalk.

Carmilla had spent the rest of the evening and most of the next day wondering about the interaction. But when they met that night and spent their time walking around the park, Laura’s arm linked with hers, fingers tickling along her wrist as the sun had set, she’d found herself unable to think of anything but what was happening at that moment. They’d stopped to stare out across the water near the end of the evening, the silence around them so comfortable. Perfect. She’d turned to Laura after a few moments, curious to find the younger girl’s eyes already on her, silently giggling. Carmilla had opened her mouth to ask what was so funny but she only got out a chastising ‘Hey’ before Laura went up on her toes and pressed her lips to the corner of Carmilla’s own mouth, licking away a bit of the caramel gelato they’d bought that had messily escaped as she’d eaten it. The act had Carmilla’s breath catching but Laura had kept her from asking anything further when she’d grabbed at the front of Carmilla’s shirt and pulled, talking rapidly about something that had happened to a friend of hers in California as they resumed their walk, a noticeable distance having taken up residence between them.

They’d spent the night of Carmilla’s birthday - after the semi-uncomfortable meeting with her mother, Mattie, and Will - wrapped around each other on Carmilla’s couch, Laura holding her close, gently combing her fingers through Carmilla’s hair, lips tickling along her hairline. When she’d finally fallen asleep, they were still snuggled together, Laura holding her so tight, their bodies fitting together so perfectly. And when Carmilla awoke the next day, she relished in the thirty seconds of haziness before rolling over to find Laura already gone, the only indication that the smaller girl had been there being the note that Laura had actually left this time.

Carm - 

    Happy Birthday! Again. Thank you for spending it with me. Though I suppose that’s what best friends do.

 Love, Laura

The ‘best friend’ label hurt at that moment but only served to make Carmilla wonder more if she might be onto something. Because it was the same thing every time. The smaller girl seemed to distance herself whenever she crossed that ‘friend’ line. Like she had embarrassed herself or perhaps was waiting for a rejection from Carmilla and hoped to avoid it by distracting Carmilla with quick words about whatever came through her mind or simply running away.

Like she’s worried that I might not want what she wants, Carmilla thought as she took a slow sip of her champagne and continued to watch Laura from across the ballroom, obviously anxious if the telltale signs of her pulling at her left ring finger remained true. But how could I not? How could I not want that incredibly wonderful woman?

“Carmilla? I’m addressing you.”

“Huh? Oh um, what?” Carmilla asked, taking one last glance at Laura before forcing her eyes away and back to her mother.

“Care to explain your guest?” Lilita pressed.

“Explain what? I asked her to come and she agreed,” Carmilla shrugged. “Why’s that a problem? You’ve never had an issue with plus ones before.”

“Nor do I now,” Lilita said with a small knowing smile. “I’m just surprised, I suppose. You don’t normally bring anyone. Or at least you haven’t in a very long time. Not since Elle.”

“Mother.”

“And here, tonight,” she continued, “you’ve invited a woman that you seem… rather fond of.”

More than fond.

“She’s just a friend.”

“Perhaps. I just find it interesting that the last time you brought anyone to one of these events, it was a very serious girlfriend. And now, apparently, there is an exception. So I’m assuming…”

“Mother…” Carmilla warned once again.

“I’m assuming that Ms. Hollis must be quite special to you in order to warrant such an invitation.”

You have no idea.

Friday, July 12th, 2019

8 days earlier

Chinatown

“Can we please have one night where we don’t talk about the business,” Will sighed, running a hand through his purposely disheveled hair. “I thought this was supposed to actually be a fun evening out.”

“What on earth would give you that idea, little brother?” Mattie asked, just barely containing an eye roll.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he answered, coolly sagging back into his seat. “Maybe the occasion.”

“You are a foolish little thing.”

“If you two don’t stop this incessant bickering, I’m going to extend this evening for even longer and you’ll be forced to spend more time together,” Lilita interrupted, taking a long sip from her wine glass, her façade never breaking even as her patience clearly waned. 

Carmilla chuckled softly when they both huffed from the other side of the table, pouting like a couple of toddlers who’d been chastised even as they quieted.

We’re all going to be in our sixties and still bowing down to her, she thought. Which really wasn’t that surprising. Lilita Morgan was a presence. A force to be reckoned with, even if Carmilla knew which buttons to push to bring out a bit of the soft.

“Now, again, I will ask how things are going on the Fleetwood account?” she said, picking at a piece of invisible lint before folding her hands neatly atop the linen-covered table. “Are you still having issues getting them on board, William.”

“Mother…” he whined and Carmilla quietly laughed once again before tuning the conversation out, uninterested in whatever it was that Will had messed up that week.

She glanced around her, the majority of the restaurant’s tables full, the other patrons laughing and carrying on as they enjoyed their own dinners with friends and lovers and family. The sounds of cutlery against plates and glasses clinking together only added to the noise that had her mother almost bolting the second they’d walked in. Which seemed to be a good indication that, thankfully, the impromptu dinner wouldn’t last very long. It wasn’t exactly that Carmilla didn’t want to be there that evening. But more that she’d been hoping to finish work for the day and slip out quietly, unnoticed so that she could go home and drown her sorrows in an oversized glass of cabernet and her copy of ‘The Sound and the Fury’, avoiding all calls, texts, or any other form of communication that her friends or family might try to use.

Might’ve made one exception though, she thought, taking a sip of her old fashioned and carefully setting the glass back on the table. But, of course, Laura’s the exception for everything it seems.

“Carm?”

She turned at the soft sound of her name, the right side of her lips instantly curving up as she caught sight of none other than Laura Hollis standing there next to Sherman, smiling softly.

Yep, she’s the only exception.

“Hey,” she started, standing and avoiding a fast-moving server with a full tray of steaming pasta as she stepped closer. “What’re you doing here?”

“We decided to come out for a bite,” Laura said, nodding toward her dad.

“She actually l-let me eat something that d-didn’t taste like cardboard,” he added, leaning heavily onto his cane, the accessory still new but one he’d seemed to master rather quickly.

“About time,” Carmilla chuckled. “She let you have dessert?”

“No,” he grumbled, scowling at Laura who was shaking her head in amusement. “She’s still b-being m-mean about my sugar.”

Carmilla shot a faux surprised look at the tiny brunette before smiling once again as Laura rolled her eyes.

“Well, well, look who it is,” Mattie said from her seat and Carmilla could hear the smirk in her voice as she turned back toward the table, meeting two sets of amused eyes from Will and Mattie and a very curious expression from her mother. 

Oh fuck.

“The mini short stack,” Mattie continued.

“Yeah, I’m just going by Laura now,” she said with a shrug.

Carmilla smirked, unsurprised at Laura’s attempt to hold her own, smiling harder when Will laughed loudly and Mattie’s eyes widened just a bit.

“I think I like you more and more every time we meet, Gidget,” Mattie said, still smiling.

“Carmilla,” Lilita started, her commanding tone immediately bringing all eyes to her. “Would you care to use your manners and properly introduce your…”

My best friend who I’ve unfortunately developed feelings for?

“Um, yeah, sorry,” she started, shaking the thought from her head. “Mother, this is Laura. She’s… she’s a friend. A good friend. And her father, Sherman Hollis.”

“A pleasure to meet you both,” Lilita said with an overly polite smile, standing to greet them. “Carmilla so rarely lets us meet any of her friends.”

“Because I’m not thirteen,” Carmilla scoffed, ignoring both Mattie and Will’s quiet laughter. “And because you’ve already met them all.”

“Nonsense, dear,” Lilita said, dismissing her with a wave of her hand as she sat back in her seat, placing her napkin in her lap and turning to Laura and Sherman again. “Now, you both must join us to celebrate. I insist.”

“Oh, no, we don’t want to interrupt,” Laura said, shaking her head.

“Nonsense, this party could use some livening up,” Mattie said, motioning for two of the servers who suddenly appeared from nowhere with additional chairs. “This is by far the most boring birthday dinner I’ve ever attended.”

“Oh, really?” Carmilla started, pulling one of the chairs out for Laura to take before returning to her own seat. “So you don’t remember your thirtieth?”

“We are not discussing that now. Or ever,” Mattie warned, eyes hardening.

“Birthday? Who’s b-birthday?” Sherman asked, settling in comfortably to his own chair next to Laura.

Shit.

“Um…” Carmilla shrugged sheepishly before looking away. She’d purposely avoided telling Laura about this in the first place as it was already something she wasn’t looking forward to.

“Carm, it’s your birthday?” Laura asked, eyes wide and…

Sad. Dammit.

“You didn’t know?” Sherman asked, brow furrowed. “W-Well, happy b-birthday, Carmilla.”

“Thank you, but it’s no big deal.”

“Why it most certainly is, darling,” Lilita said. “It’s your thirtieth. And as you refused to celebrate any other way, we’re going to sit here and have a lovely dinner with your friend.”

“Yes with your very good friend,” Mattie added, chuckling softly when Carmilla shot her a threatening look. 

Mattie smiled once more before turning to Will to discuss their plans for the rest of the evening, apparently no longer interested in causing any further trouble. At least for the moment. On the other side of the table, Lilita had already engaged Sherman in conversation, her reserved façade up in full force as she continued to ask him about himself.

“Why didn’t you tell me it was your birthday?” Laura asked softly, pulling her attention to the tiny brunette.

“I mean, it doesn’t matter,” Carmilla shrugged, reaching for her drink and taking a small sip.

“But… but I missed it. I’m a terrible friend.”

“No, you’re not. You’re… you’re amazing,” Carmilla said, hoping Laura wouldn’t pick up on the fact that she’d omitted a word.

“But-”

“It’s fine, cutie,” Carmilla interrupted, reaching out and placing her hand next to Laura’s on top of the table, their pinkies just barely brushing. “I don’t typically do the whole celebration thing and this wasn’t a birthday I was particularly looking forward to anyway. Thirty is… kind of terrible.”

Laura giggled softly, moving a little closer in her seat.

“Anything I can do to make it better?”

“I think you already did,” Carmilla answered, smiling harder when Laura’s hand slid from the table and onto her knee, squeezing gently.

“We’ll see.”

Three hours later

Carmilla reached into her pocket as the elevator doors slid open with a ding and stepped into the hallway. The evening had gone on for far longer than she would’ve liked, her mother insisting on taking her, Mattie, and Will for a celebratory drink at a ‘proper’ establishment after they’d finished their dinner and parted ways with a smiling Laura and a yawning Sherman. They’d both wished her well once more, Sherman smiling at her a little wider than normal as they said goodnight and got into the backseat of a cab. Carmilla had wanted to go with them and spend the rest of her evening with Laura but she knew she’d already be taking enough crap from Mattie and Will come Monday morning.

No reason to give them even more ammo, she thought, locating the correct key to her apartment and finally looking up when she reached the halfway point in the hall.

“What…?” Her feet stopped suddenly with a slight squeak against the white marble floor, her brow furrowing in confusion even as her lips began to pull upward. “What’re you doing here?”

“You didn’t honestly think I’d just let your birthday go by with nothing more, did you?” Laura asked from her spot in front of Carmilla’s front door, holding on to a small white cardboard box, nervously bouncing on the balls of her feet.

Of course, Carmilla thought as she began walking again, her eyes never leaving Laura’s.

“So you decided to just wait here until I got back? Not to call and try to save me from a longer and more torturous night with my family?”

“Well, I didn’t want to be rude or demanding,” Laura shrugged. “Besides, I had an errand to run first.”

“Oh? And what do you have there?” she asked when she reached the door, nodding toward the box in Laura’s hands.

“Well…” she started, shuffling it to open the lid.

Carmilla glanced inside, smiling softly at the two oversized cupcakes she saw there, the chocolate whipped frosting having slightly slid off the one on the right, covering the inside of the box.

“Sorry,” Laura said, drawing her gaze back up. “The ride on the way here was a little bumpy. But you can have the pretty one.”

“So I get you?” Carmilla said, her mouth moving quicker than her brain. But the slight blush that instantly covered Laura’s cheeks was worth it.

She reached up, pushing the lid to the box closed as she stepped closer, her eyes searching Laura’s, finding nothing but warmth in her soft brown depths. Slowly, she leaned in, bringing her hand up to cup the younger girl’s cheek as their lips met in a soft, slow kiss.

And how do I not spend every waking moment kissing her?

She opened her eyes as they parted, taking in the adoring smile on Laura’s face, the blush more prominent now.

“So… this is okay?” she asked, the nervous tone in her voice just barely audible.

And for a moment, Carmilla wasn’t sure what she really meant by that. Was it okay that Laura had stopped by unannounced with a celebratory treat? Was it okay that the smaller girl had waited? Or… in all the fear and confusion and minor panic that had seemed to surface between them lately, was it okay? Was it okay to want more?

“Definitely okay, cutie,” Carmilla said, eyes softening, not caring which question she was actually answering.

“Good,” Laura said as she reached up, grabbing the front of Carmilla’s shirt and pulling her back in, their lips just barely brushing. “Happy birthday, Carm.”

Saturday, July 20th, 2019

Back in the present

The Beekman, Financial District

“Carmilla?” Lilita said, pulling her out of the memory and returning her to the low lit ballroom, the din of the people around her slowly floating back to her ears.

“Sorry,” she said, meeting her mother’s gaze, that curious look still in her eyes. “Mother, seriously. She’s just a friend.”

“And a very lovely friend at that,” Lilita said, smiling once more. She reached out squeezing at Carmilla’s arm, her hand chilled but her eyes warm, the softness there something she had so rarely brought out over the last few years. And seeing it at that moment had Carmilla’s head starting to spin. “This is good, darling.”

“What’s go-”

“Hey,” Laura interrupted, stepping up beside her with a little nervous wave, gaze moving back and forth between Carmilla and Lilita. “Hi.”

“Laura, darling, how are you?” Lilita smiled, stepping forward and taking the tiny brunette’s hand, squeezing once before shifting away.

“Oh, um, I’m fine, thank you,” Laura answered, bouncing a bit in her black heels. “Lovely to see you again, Ms. Morgan.”

“Please, Lilita,” she said, her eyes moving seamlessly from Laura to Carmilla and back. “I’m so pleased you could make it. It’s wonderful having you here.”

“Oh! Yeah… yeah, thanks.” Laura stumbled.

“Well, I’ll leave you to it then,” Lilita said with a soft chuckle as she moved away, placing an air kiss against Carmilla’s cheek. “Please enjoy the rest of the party.”

Carmilla watched as her mother gracefully walked off, her smile no longer warm but all business as she greeted one client after the next. Turning toward the girl on her right, she felt her own lips begin to quirk up as her eyes raked over Laura’s form.

“Wow,” she sighed.

“What?” Laura asked, looking down at her dress. “Is this okay? I know it’s a fancy dinner thing but I didn’t exactly plan for a gala when I was packing to come here and Perry said this would be fine but if you want, I can go back home and ch-”

“Stop,” Carmilla interrupted her, her dark eyes finally meeting Laura’s once again. “You… god, you look beautiful, Laura.”

“Oh,” she squeaked, her cheeks instantly dusting in pink.

Carmilla smiled wider at the sight, a gentle chuckle leaving her lips.

“You know, this is the part where you compliment me,” she teased.

“Oh, right. Yeah. Well, I mean…” Laura sputtered for a moment before smiling softly, her shoulders dipping as she completely relaxed. “Whatever, Carm, you already know you look gorgeous. You always look gorgeous.”

“Hmm,” Carmilla hummed, reaching for Laura’s hand, their fingers braiding together. “Guess we must look pretty great together then, huh?”

“I think we do,” Laura said, stepping forward to close the distance between them, her other hand coming up to Carmilla’s wrist, fingers softly tickling. “So come on. May as well walk me around and show me off. I am your date after all.”

Carmilla simply laughed and shook her head as she pulled Laura further into the room.

Two hours later

She hadn’t meant to get sidetracked or stay away for so long. But one client led to another and before she knew it, Carmilla’s three minute trip to the bathroom had turned into a half-hour sideshow of fake smiles and polite laughter. And it would’ve gone on for longer if it weren’t for Perry who knew the signs better than anyone and had immediately come to fetch Carmilla for a ‘pressing issue’ when the last client got a little too invested in their discussion on why he was paying too much for their services.

“You’re definitely earning your paycheck this week,” Carmilla said as she followed the curly-haired girl to the other side of the room.

“You had the look,” she answered, stopping at the table where LaF was already waiting, pulling at the blue polka dot bow tie that had been slightly off-center all evening. “Besides, Fisher will talk all night if you let him. And most of what he has to say doesn’t matter anyway.”

“Well aware of that,” Carmilla sighed, picking up the champagne flute she’d left on the table. “But thanks anyway. Where’s Laura?”

“Over with Danny near the desserts,” Perry pointed.

You’ve got to be shitting me.

“Lawrence?” Carmilla scowled as she turned, immediately catching sight of the tall redhead with Laura standing next to her, close, both smiling and laughing, seemingly lost in their own little world. “What in the hell she doing here?”

“You guys do advertising for the gym,” LaF said, their expression confused when Carmilla turned back to them. “Pretty sure that means she was invited.”

“She never comes to these things,” Carmilla argued, feeling her muscles grow tighter and tighter with each second. “So why did she decide to come to this one? She hates this high society, fancy crap almost as much as I do and she always declines the invites.”

“Not always,” Perry said.

“Yes, always. Last time the excuse was a sudden ‘gym emergency’, which what the hell does that even mean? The time before that all three of them were mysteriously out of town, but only for that night. And before that, if I remember correctly, Kirsch called and said he had a sudden bout of chlamydia and that they were all heading to the hospital to get it ‘taken care of.’”

Beside her LaF choked on their drink, sputtering as they attempted to not make a mess and Perry just stared, wide-eyed.

“I forgot about that,” LaF said, still snickering once they’d swallowed. “He lost a bet so it was either tell you that or pay Danny and Mel fifty bucks each. He clearly has his priorities in order. And he really must not care what you think of him.”

“Regardless, what the hell? She’s hardly a high paying client. What I charge barely covers the cost of my water bill. So why’d she come tonight?”

You know why. Because this time is different.

“It’s not a big deal, Carm,” LaF said, their smile slipping away. “I’m sure they’re all just trying to be supportive in coming tonight. And it’s kind of nice seeing everyone here in their fancy duds.”

“‘They’re’ trying to be supportive?”

“Yes, dear, Kirsch and Mel are over at the bar,” Perry added, studying Carmilla a little closer. “They all arrived together twenty minutes ago.”

She glanced over, easily spotting her two friends amongst a dozen other clients, Kirsch attempting to wipe his tie clean from whatever he’d spilled on it with a cocktail napkin and Mel smiling and shaking her head at him in amusement.

Oh.

“Fine, whatever,” she grumbled, glancing back over to where Laura still stood, laughing at something Danny was saying, her hand coming up to pat against the taller girl’s bicep. “Glad they came to freeload.”

“Carmilla…”

She just barely glanced over before immediately looking away, the pity she saw on both Perry and LaF’s faces at that moment too much to handle. She didn’t need their pity. She didn’t want it. Just because she had feelings for Laura – because she’d figured it out and been able to actually admit that she wanted more with the tiny brunette – that didn’t mean anything else had changed.

And it certainly doesn’t mean that anything will change, she thought, her eyes drifting back across the room to Laura once more. She stared, unable to stop herself, taking in every inch of the tiny brunette’s beauty. Her carefree smile and gorgeous eyes. Strong arms and shoulders that seemed to be able to hold up the world. Her poise that she didn’t even seem to know she possessed. But it has changed. And… dammit, why’d I have to develop feelings for her?

“I’m sure she’ll be back any moment now,” Perry said softly from the other side of the table as though she was reading Carmilla’s thoughts.

“Who?” she asked, knowing she wasn’t fooling anyone with her disaffected attitude.

“Karnstein, come on,” LaF said, not giving her the out.

“Look, it’s fine. Why should I care?” she said, shrugging and still failing miserably to look as aloof as possible. “She can do whatever she wants. Just because I invited her doesn’t mean she owes me anything.”

“Now, Carmilla, there’s no need for that,” Perry said. “Laura adores you and she was thrilled that you’d asked her to attend tonight.”

“Clearly,” Carmilla huffed.

“She was,” Perry insisted. “You mean so much to her and… well, the way she is with you, I can’t help but wonder. I mean, perhaps if you would just-”

“Per,” LaF cut her off with a soft shake of their head, eyes somber.

Perry sighed, her shoulders slumping for half a second before she straightened up and forced a new smile to her face.

“You should go talk to her. After all, she’s your date tonight.”

“Yeah, well, I think she’s busy now.”

“But, Carmilla-”

“I said it’s fine,” she snapped, watching as the last of Perry’s hopeful expression melted away. “Just… just leave it alone.”

Great. Now you’re just treating everyone like shit because you can’t find the guts to deal with this.

“Really,” she said, her voice much calmer. “It’s fine. I’ll… I’ll talk to her later.”

“Very well,” Perry said, her curls bouncing slightly as she nodded in understanding. “In that case, I think we’re going to go get ourselves another cocktail. Can we bring you back anything, dear?”

“Couple of shots?” LaF asked with a teasing grin, clearly trying to lighten the mood.

“I’m good,” she answered, glancing at both of them with a slight nod before taking another sip from her champagne flute and looking away. But not before she saw that same compassion in Perry’s eyes. And certainly not before LaF left what she assumed was supposed to be a supportive pat on her shoulder.

Fuck.

They knew. Maybe not the entirety of the situation or just how deep it all really went. But they knew something was going on. They knew that Carmilla didn’t exactly see Laura as just a friend. They knew. 

Of course they do. Betty Crocker is the queen of feelings and love and all that other bullshit. And LaF gets right in the thick of it when it comes to Perry.

She sighed heavily, closing her eyes for a long moment, thinking about how she was going to get herself out of this situation. Because dealing with the ginger duo’s sympathy and support over a crush on her best friend was not something Carmilla was willing to put up with, in any way, shape, or form.

Could be worse though, I guess. Could be Mel suspecting something. That would be a nightmare, she thought, slowly opening her eyes and glancing across the room toward the luxurious desserts. Or worse yet, Lawrence. Fuck.

She watched the tall redhead still standing there, laughing heartily at something Laura was saying as the younger girl gestured wildly around her. Which hurt even more. And not just because she now had feelings for Laura. Not just because her lack of subtlety had opened the door for some of her friends to suspect. And certainly not because years and years earlier, she’d encouraged something that she never realized would come back to bite her.

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

4 years, 2 months, and 6 days earlier

Chelsea

“So what do you think?” Carmilla asked as she sat back in her chair and kicked her feet up onto the edge of the table in front of her, staring at the trio on the opposite side.

“I think you have no fucking manners, Karnstein,” Mel said, reaching over and shoving her boot-clad feet off the corner.

Carmilla chuckled and sat forward in her chair, resting her elbows on the triple hand-me-down wooden table they were seated around.

“And…?” she prompted, her smile cocky on the outside even as her insecurities started leaking through on the inside.

“And…” Mel continued, turning back toward the laptop in front of her, a smile slowly starting to pull at her lips. “And I think this is pretty awesome.”

“It’s totally awesome, dude!” Kirsch added, eyes wide, mouth slightly agape.

Carmilla nodded, glancing away and staring down at the scratched surface in front of her, a small sense of pride washing those pesky insecurities away. The mockup was something she may or may not have put a few late nights in on and it was something her friends could actually afford. Something she was hoping would serve them well.

“Seriously, you’ve outdone yourself, Carm,” Mel said, nodding at the screen once more before looking up.

“It’s not a big deal,” she shrugged. “But it’s something that should be fairly easy to implement quickly. Which will be perfect for the upcoming swimsuit season. You’ll have more business than you can handle.”

“You looking for a membership?” Mel teased.

“You’ve seen me, right?” Carmilla smirked. “I think I’m good.”

“So damn cocky,” Mel sighed before turning to Danny who’d been completely silent so far, too distracted with her phone to bother with the conversation. “Hey, you want to chime in here, red?”

Carmilla chuckled when Danny didn’t even glance up, her thumbs moving rapidly over the phone’s screen, bottom lip trapped between her teeth.

“Lawrence!”

“Huh?” Danny asked, finally pulling her gaze away from her phone.

“Do you want to tell whatever girl your texting that you’ll meet her later and actually participate?” Mel grumbled. “I mean, this is your business too.”

“I’m not texting any girl,” Danny argued petulantly. “It’s just Laura.”

“Dude, she’s the biggest girl of them all,” Kirsch said with a goofy smile that quickly morphed into a grimace when Danny punched him in the shoulder.

“Don’t start,” she warned, finger pointing back and forth between Mel and Kirsch for a moment before finally glancing at the ad on the laptop screen and nodding. “And sure, it looks okay.”

“Oh, how you flatter me,” Carmilla deadpanned.

“How quick can you get this up and running?” Mel asked before Danny could reply.

“As soon as you sign the dotted line.”

“Pretty sure you give us preferential treatment,” Mel said, standing and hoisting her duffle bag onto her shoulder, shaking her head with a smile when Carmilla merely shrugged. “I’ll send everything over in the morning. But I have to go now. Charlotte’s waiting and I’m already late.”

“I’m right behind you,” Kirsch said, scrambling up and grabbing his own things. “Scored a second date with the blonde from the marathon.”

“Be a gentleman and you might get a third,” Mel threw over her shoulder as she walked out of the room, Kirsch hot on her heels, his proclamation of always being a gentleman muffled.

Carmilla just laughed once more as she stood, closing her laptop and shoving it into her gray messenger bag. Glancing up, her eyes once again landed on Danny, phone back in hand and looking absolutely miserable.

“Not that I care,” she started. “But what the hell is wrong with you tonight?”

“Nothing,” Danny answered, just barely looking up.

“That’s super convincing with the epic pout you’ve got going on.”

“It’s not a big deal,” Danny huffed. “Just… some minor girl trouble.”

“Since when do you not have girl trouble?” Carmilla joked, laughing a little louder when Danny quickly flipped her off.

“This is… this is different,” she sighed, glancing at her phone once more before shoving it in her bag and standing, the legs of her chair squealing against the linoleum in protest.

Carmilla simply nodded and turned away, continuing to pack up the few folders she’d brought along, her back to the other girl, the conversation finished as far as she was concerned. Though they’d formed an odd sort of friendship since their introduction a few years earlier, they had never been ones to talk about their feelings or serious issues. So when Danny spoke again, it more than surprised her.

“I just…” Danny sighed quietly. “I don’t know what to do.”

“About what?” Carmilla asked, playing dumb.

“The girl. Laura. I don’t… I don’t know how to deal with this.”

“I find alcohol to be a great comfort.”

“Carmilla!”

“What?” she sighed, shoving the rest of her things into her bag and slinging it over her shoulder as she turned toward Danny. “Look, you obviously like this girl Lauren-”

“Laura!”

“Right, her. So stop moping and fucking do something about it.”

“It’s not that simple,” Danny argued, running a frustrated hand across her face.

“Why not?” Carmilla shrugged. “You like her. Go get her. Seems pretty simple to me.”

“Well, it isn’t because she’s with someone else.”

“You never took someone else’s girl?”

“Just because that’s what you do-”

“Tread lightly, Lawrence,” Carmilla warned.

“I just… I can’t do that to her. She’s happy and I don’t want to ruin that,” Danny shrugged. “But I’ve felt this way for so long. And now…”

Goddamnit, Carmilla internally sighed as she stepped back toward the table.

“How long?”

“Years.”

“You’ve had a crush on this girl for years?” Carmilla balked. “And you haven’t done anything about it?”

“I did have a crush but now… it’s more than that,” Danny sighed.

Carmilla nodded once, studying the devastated expression on the tall girl’s face as the silence hung around them. It was a look she’d see before, though this was the first time she’d ever seen it on Danny.

“Are you in love with her?”

Danny slowly looked up, her throat bobbing as she swallowed once and nodded.

“Has she ever been in love with you?”

“I… I think so,” Danny said, voice quiet.

“Then what’s the real problem? Why are you holding yourself back?”

And why am I pushing this? Why do I care?

“Because I want her to have the best,” Danny said. “She deserves that. She deserves someone who’s going to treat her like gold.”

“Lawrence,” she sighed, shaking her head and cringing at what was about to come out of her mouth.

Sure, she and Danny had had their differences in the past. They didn’t always see eye to eye and had gotten into more than one heated argument. But at the end of the day, she knew Danny. She knew the tall redhead was someone worth having in her life.

“You’re a pain in the ass,” she finally said. “A huge one. But despite that, you’re also pretty damn good.”

Danny stared at her for a moment, eyes slightly wider than normal, clearly not expecting the words and Carmilla shrugged and pushed on, not wanting to dwell on this for too long.

“I’m sure she’d be lucky to have you. And she’d be an idiot to turn you down,” she started. “That is if you ever got your shit together and went for it.” She paused for a moment, shrugging once more before rounding the corner of the table. “Or you could keep being a wimp and stay miserable and sulky. Super attractive qualities by the way.”

Danny chuckled quietly, nodding and glancing down at her feet.

“Seriously,” she sighed, her insides weaving together uncomfortably with her admission. “You’re… you’re a catch, Lawrence. So woman up and go get her.”

“I won’t tell anyone you said any of that,” Danny said, smiling softly when she looked up.

“I’ll up my fee and you won’t be able to afford me if you do.”

Danny laughed once again before gathering up her things and slowly moving toward the door.

“I’m not saying that I’ll be declaring anything tonight but I’ll think about it.”

“Alright, then can we stop this incredibly awkward conversation?” Carmilla asked as she followed. “It’s freaking me out.”

“Sure, no problem,” she said over her shoulder. “So how’re things with Elle going?”

“I thought we were done with this feel-good bullshit.”

“No one else is around,” Danny shrugged, starting down the stairway, her sneakers echoing in the empty space. “Was just asking.”

Carmilla glanced down, watching her feet as she took each step, her thoughts drifting to her girlfriend. Elle really was perfect for her. She was smart and funny. Beautiful and independent. Adventurous yet relaxed. She didn’t make demands or push. But still, there was something missing. And try as she might, Carmilla hadn’t been able to figure out what it was.

“Things are… good, I guess,” she finally answered as they reached the main floor.

“You guess?”

“Well, she seems happy.”

Which is true.

“And what about you?” Danny asked, winding her way through the deserted gym equipment. “Are you happy?”

Well…

“Sure,” she shrugged. “Why not?”

“Super convincing, Karnstein.”

“Well, what do you want me to say?” She sighed heavily as she stepped through the front door of the building, stopping on the sidewalk while Danny locked up. “This conversation is fucking weird.”

“I don’t want you to say anything,” Danny said as she turned and pocketed her keys. “I mean, Elle’s great. We all know that. We all really like her.”

“But…?”

“Not a but,” Danny shrugged. “I mean, if you’re happy, that’s all that matters. But are you in love with her? Like ‘crazy about her, miss her all the time, want her so much you can’t get enough of her’ love?”

“Like you and this woman you’re in love with?” Carmilla scoffed, feeling her chest tighten more and more with each word uttered.

“That’s how I feel, yes,” Danny nodded. “Is that how you feel with Elle?”

Fuck.

“What’re you getting at, Lawrence?” she sighed. “What is all this about?”

“Nothing,” Danny said, taking a step closer. “But you deserve to be happy too, you know? You’re a good person, Karnstein, despite the fact that you try to fool everyone into believing you’re an asshole. And you deserve a woman who… who you actually love. Who is just as crazy for you.”

Carmilla stared for a long moment, gripping tightly to the strap on her bag, the words leaving Danny’s mouth more surprising than her own declaration from just moments earlier. Yes, Elle was great. And did she make Carmilla happy? Sure. Did Carmilla care about her? Absolutely. But was she in love with Elle? Was Elle really the one she was willing to fully let in? To be there for? To spend hours upon hours with, just them, nothing else in the world even registering?

… no.

“Alright, you’ve said your piece, I’ve said mine,” Carmilla started, pushing the thoughts away. “Can we stop now? I’m maxed out on my ability to have an actual emotionally-driven discussion with you.”

“Honestly, ditto,” Danny laughed, turning and walking in the other direction. “Come on. I’ll buy you a beer to make up for it. We can roast each other for a while and bring balance back into the universe.”

“Oh?”

“Domestic only!” she called out over her shoulder.

Carmilla simply laughed as she followed.

Saturday, July 20th, 2019

Back in the present

The Beekman, Financial District

‘It’s weird. I mean, even with them living so far apart, we’ve all just been kind of waiting for it to happen for years now. For both of them to swear off the shitty women they date and be together. Because… because it makes sense.’

The words danced through Carmilla’s head in Mel’s voice over and over on a loop as she stared across the room, continuing to watch the couple who seemed to be completely focused on each other, the rest of the room not even on their radar.

So yes, it hurt. And no, the sting now wasn’t just because of her own feelings for Laura. Sure, that was a big part of it, but what pressed the pain further into her chest was the fact that she genuinely liked Danny. That they had actually become friends over the years. Weird friends, but friends nonetheless. That that night, all those years ago, Carmilla had found herself actually hoping that Danny would figure it out. That’s she’d get her girl.

And now ‘her’ girl is the one I want. She’s the one that I care about. The one that… She huffed, shaking her head in an attempt to push it all away. I can’t think about this now. Not now, not here. Not tonight.

Taking a deep breath, she stood from the table and smoothed out her dress, preparing to turn toward the clients who she should’ve been giving her attention to this whole time, but she couldn’t help herself. Her gaze still drifted to Laura one last time just as the younger girl finally looked in her direction, those soft brown eyes bright, smile widening ever so slightly. She mouthed a quiet ‘hey’ as she waved and Carmilla felt the right side of her lips just barely turn up as she sent a little wave back.

God, I’m so fucking screwed.

‘Come here,’ Laura mouthed, motioning once more, her smile somehow more breathtaking than ever.

Carmilla was sure of many things in her life. She was confident in her work. She knew how to handle her family with ease. She had no problem putting her friends in their place. And she was more than capable of getting what she wanted. Money, possessions, women. It didn’t matter what, nothing was unattainable.

But Laura Hollis was throwing a wrench in that world. Because even if she thought Laura might have feelings for her, she wasn’t completely and utterly sure. And even if Laura had told her more than once that Danny was nothing more than a friend, Carmilla couldn’t be positive that that sentiment was a permanent state. She couldn’t know that Laura would never change her mind.

No. She wasn’t sure. Not at all. And if Danny was finally ready… if she was really going to go after what she wanted…

How in the hell do I compare with someone Laura’s been crazy about before? With someone who everyone expects her to be with? she thought as her feet started to move on their own, carrying her toward the smaller girl who was still smiling at her. Dammit. How do I compete with someone who is completely and totally in love with her?